A deconstruction of one of the best music films ever made.
Here in the UK there has been quite a stir in the last few weeks regarding what many see as the long-overdue reappearance of an artist whose fame and reputation are maybe only outstripped by the sheer force of his musical talent. Prince (for it is he) has been playing a series of reportedly fantastic live shows, airing new material, and even appeared at the recent BRIT awards, although having been gratuitously ‘selfied’ by host and ‘comedian’ James Corden he may now be regretting that. It seems the Man in Purple is hot property again, so what I’ve decided to do is take us back to his heyday, and to the iconic film and soundtrack that marked him becoming a global mega-star whose only serious rivals in the 80’s in terms of sheer presence and fame were Madonna and Michael Jackson (although in terms of sheer ability as a musician, composer, performer etc… Prince far outstripped both of them).
Released in 1984, and conceived primarily as a showcase for his many talents, Purple Rain sees Prince playing ‘The Kid’ (basically a less famous version of himself) a nightclub musician with a bad temper, a troubled homelife and a fairly appalling attitude towards women. The storyline centres around his rivalry with the band The Time, and his relationships with his abusive father (played by Clarence Williams III) and his on/off girlfriend and singer Apollonia, played by the then unknown Patricia ‘Apollonia’ Kotero, cast after the role had reportedly been turned down by Flashdance star Jennifer Beales.
In terms of its dramatic content and performances this film was never likely to win any awards. That said, it’s nowhere near as bad as you might imagine. Prince’s central performance, whilst a little hammy at times is neither flat-out terrible nor even the worst thing in the film, flattered as he is by a surrounding cast of musicians rather than actors. The dialogue and character development is straight out of a daytime soap-opera and largely forgettable, particularly scenes relating to his family troubles which paint his mother as little more than a crying punch-bag for his father, a man whose anger and turmoil is explored but never satisfactorily explained. Yet when placed alongside the year’s other big music-movie release – Paul McCartney’s truly execrable vanity-project, Give My Regards To Broad Street – it actually fares quite well and director Albert Magnoli does seem to have drawn something half-decent from the rudimentary elements at his disposal. The movie entertains, even at it’s cheesiest moments, and despite it’s many flaws.
Of course the real star of the show is the music, and the performances throughout the film are stunning. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights:
Morris Day & The Time – The Bird
One of two performances from the film by The Kid’s main antagonist’s band, this comes near the end and can be seen as a throwing down of the gauntlet, a battle song that sends the message ‘try following this!’. As they play we get shots of The Revolution in their dressing room, pensive and nervous, wholly unaware of how The Kid is about to react (more of that in a moment). I love this, the energy, the dance moves, the squawking and Morris’s gold jacket too!
The Revolution – Darling Nikki
If there was one subject that dominated Prince lyrics of this period more than any other it was sex. Raw, dirty, unfiltered sex. In the film this is a song The Kid sings seemingly to taunt Apollonia with tales of his erotic adventures, and the scene is part of the thread of the film dealing with the main character’s fairly shocking misogyny, supposedly inherited from his father and all part of the inner demons he battles. I guess such things were designed to make him seem edgy and dangerous, but the fact that they are never properly resolved (and to a certain extent actually appear to be excused) in the film is a problem. Putting all that aside for the moment, this is super-charged stuff from Prince, a magnetic performance full of lurid sweat and sexuality and is a real highlight of the film.
The Revolution – Purple Rain/I Would Die 4 U
The climax of the film (coming after the Morris Day clip above), and its most famous scene is the electrifying performance of what is perhaps his signature song (a performance which due to copyright issues I can’t show you here. Blah…) and provides the climax. In the movie the song comes from a demo band members Wendy and Lisa have been unsuccessfully trying to get him to do something with. Throughout the film The Kid keeps playing the demo at home, and after the scene where his father shoots himself he finally fleshes it out, adding lyrics and turning it in to a song.
The performance begins with a long uncomfortable silence after which he announces, to the surprise of everyone including the band, that ‘tonight we’re going to do a song by the girls in the band, Wendy and Lisa’. What follows is 8 minutes of Prince at his most supreme, all hysterical shrieks and moans and of course that guitar solo (and that guitar!). After finishing, The Kid runs from the stage only to be lured back by the roar of the crowd. When he returns he launches in to one of his most infectious pop tunes, I Would Die 4 U (no copyright issues with this…), bringing everybody some sunshine after the (purple) rain.
Watching this film again what strikes me is firstly how good the film looks, even if it does have the feel of an extended pop video. What really comes across in the musical sections though is the sheer vitality of a supremely gifted writer and performer who was just hitting his creative peak. The whole soundtrack album is one of his best and if you don’t think you can stand the film, then you should definitely own a copy of that. Shit, it includes the staggering ‘When Doves Cry’ which I haven’t even mentioned but is maybe my favourite Prince track. Any album that includes that has to be worth owning a copy of.
It’s great to see Prince back and doing what he does best, and does better than most. I’ve heard a couple of the new songs and they aren’t bad at all. However, the 1980’s was when he really ruled the roost and with this film and soundtrack he announced himself to the world in no uncertain terms. Whatever your opinion of him (I always loved the Boy George quote – “he looks like a dwarf who’s been dipped in a bucket of pubic hair”) there’s no denying his talent or his star qualities. Rumours are he is to headline Glastonbury this year. If he does I’ve a feeling that it will remind everybody just how great he really is. The ruler’s back…